Tech & Work

Is perfectionism killing your career?

In a time when adaptability is the name of the game for success, the rigidity of perfectionism may be an unwanted trait.

If you're a manager, it seems like you would seek out people who want to be perfect in everything they do. Especially if you're an IT manager who gets hounded by hoards of end-users for any mistakes, it would seem that having a few perfectionists on the staff would be ideal.

According to one TechRepublic member who emailed me, however, that's just not the case. This guy is an IT manager who is finding that the perfectionist on his staff has become a major bottleneck, and he can't figure out what to do about it.

"One of the guys who reports to me—I'll call him Norm—is a perfectionist. It takes him twice as long as anyone else to perform a task because he has to make sure every detail is perfect. This is a great trait for someone who is programming code I guess, but Norm is running some projects for which just producing something outweighs the need for perfection. The amount of attention he devotes to the minutiae just isn't worth it in the cases of the projects he works on. He's becoming a bottleneck, and gets pretty ticked off if anyone says anything.

We're a very laid-back group otherwise, and I'm an easy-going manager. He really doesn't have to fear any kind of dire repercussions from mistakes so I don't know where all this is coming from."

When I was younger I had some perfectionist tendencies. Sometimes I wouldn't stick with something if I didn't think I could do an outstanding job. Mediocre just wasn't an option. That was partly why I had to give up cage wrestling.

Seriously though, if you're dealing with the true perfectionist personality type, the situation is not likely to change on its own. Perfectionists suffer from a fear of failure, and failure to them is "not perfect." And because they're so afraid of failing, perfectionists will become immobilized and fail to do anything at all (procrastination). Because many perfectionists also suffer from low self-esteem, they also see any kind of constructive criticism as terrifying and they lash out.

Psychology Today, in a piece called "Pitfalls of Perfectionism," described the condition this way:

You could say that perfectionism is a crime against humanity. Adaptability is the characteristic that enables the species to survive-and if there's one thing perfectionism does, it rigidifies behavior. It constricts people just when the fast-moving world requires more flexibility and comfort with ambiguity than ever. It turns people into success slaves.

You might want to sit down with Norm to make sure there's no underlying reason that he feels like his output needs to be perfect. Maybe you're intimidating him without knowing it. But if that's not the case, and he is just a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, you can try altering the types of projects you give him. Also, implement mini-deadlines on each arm of the project so you can ensure he's keeping a normal pace.

Here's a good piece from About.com called "Overcoming Perfectionism: How To Develop a Healthier Outlook," that might help him conquer his issues. Ultimately, you have to decide if his behavior is enough of an impediment to your shop that you have to consider transferring him or letting him go. I hope not. I hope that he can work things out. But, if not, there may be another company or line of work for which his perfectionism is completely suited.

If you're reading this and suspect you might be a perfectionist, you can take this test from Discovery Health.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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